Photo by Stephen Szurlej

A Simple and Stunning Kindness

Racing against New Zealand’s lockdown clock with a camper van and a wedge
Listen to a reading of this feature by Andy Ogburn

4 days until lockdown

The world’s doors were slamming shut, and New Zealand was next. My partner, Caroline, and I had been road-tripping the country in a camper van for the first few months of 2020—two 20-somethings who’d ditched Manhattan in January, enjoying our flirtation with the nomadic life. But we couldn’t outrun the coronavirus. To date, the trip had been part Into the Wild, part Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It really came down to how nice the campground bathrooms were on a given night. But now the possibility of living in that van for a monthslong lockdown—eating inside the van, sleeping inside the van, bathing preferably somewhere outside the van—brought the real world crashing into the passenger seat. As airports across the world closed, flights back home became increasingly scarce. I needed to buy a lot of soap, or a ticket home. Instead, I bought a sand wedge.

That morning, March 20, we picked up the paper in the lake town of Wanaka. It was still midsummer on New Zealand’s South Island, the kind of warm day that makes you feel like anything askew in the world should be off bothering someone else. But we couldn’t ignore the 100-point headline: “NZ borders closed.” The coronavirus was here—even paradise wasn’t immune—and travelers like us were given a narrow window to leave the country. If we were to have a chance, we had to move. Now.

New Zealand hadn’t yet entered a full nationwide lockdown. But the locals believed a halt of all travel within the country was imminent, and we had little time to prepare before Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern made it official. As we awaited her address, Caroline and I scrambled to determine the smartest plan for us. Going home seemed like the right thing to do…but was it? New Zealand’s COVID-19 numbers were much more encouraging than the U.S. reports. Was it somehow safer to stay in our van? Our conversations took hairpin turns as each piece of pandemic news broke and we grappled with the confusion of the strange times. In the end, being near our families in case they had any issues won out; we would try for home.

Weeks prior, in a blissfully different world, we’d bought the renovated van to live in for the last half of a six-month junket in New Zealand. We met a French couple with expiring visas trying to offload a silver 2004 Toyota Voxy before they left the country. When we saw the cooktop, pantry and foldable mattress they’d installed by hand, Caroline and I knew it would be worth the foreign bank fees and any Google Translate hiccups to take it off their hands. The van was the most affordable way to see the country on our own schedule, including rounds of golf where possible, renting clubs along the way. 

Photo by Stephen Szurlej

Thus far we’d visited the Wanaka Golf Club on a perfect 85-degree day for summer golf on the lake. For some reason, the course was empty.

“It’s too hot, don’t ya think?” the woman running the pro shop asked us. Caroline, a cold-blooded Texan and straight as an arrow off the tee, thought it a laughable excuse to waste a golf day. We kept it in the wide fairways and finished in three hours.

We also rolled into the Queenstown Golf Club, situated on the best piece of land in New Zealand’s adventure capital. The wind off the water picked up and big numbers were posted. It was tough to keep an eye on the ball in the face of 360-degree views, but the scenery relieved any scorecard tension. 

The highlight was a round at the famously beautiful Jack’s Point for an unreasonably expensive (yet still underpriced) afternoon. Framed by the Remarkables mountain range to one side and Lake Wakatipu to the other, Nos. 5 through 7 at Jack’s proved to be the perfect combination of gettable and beautiful. I reached the par-4 sixth with an easy 3-wood, but burned the edge on the eagle try. On the par-3 seventh tee, it seemed like Caroline and I narrowly missed skydivers enjoying Queenstown from above. And if you get a chance to use the showers, do it. Especially if it’s unclear where your next shower is coming from.

We’d hoped to top it off with Cape Kidnappers, where, without a tee time, our plan was to sneak on or charm our way into 18 of golf’s most beautiful holes. Alas, the gate was closed and the other end of the intercom was silent.

We were getting into the rhythm of van life, meeting travelers from every corner of the map and enjoying “home-cooked” ramen at campgrounds between courses. But overnight, our world flipped: The pandemic had arrived, and suddenly we felt saddled with this van and a long way from our actual home.

71 hours until lockdown

The first step of our exit strategy had us moving up the map as fast as possible to get within spitting distance of Auckland’s international airport. This required a 10-hour drive north, then a ferry to North Island. There, we’d cross our fingers for tickets home and likely just abandon the van in a parking lot.

On our way out of Wanaka, we did what any good evacuees would do and stopped for the essentials. For me, that meant a wedge. I felt like if the world was ending, we might as well hit a few balls. We pulled into Wastebusters, a dusty thrift shop just outside of town. In a back corner, within a trove of forgotten golf clubs, I spotted an ancient niblick—a short iron with a massive face and wooden shaft. Stamped by A.G. Spalding & Bros., it looked like it was forged for Old Tom Morris himself—an antique that could fetch a couple hundred bucks from the right Scottish bloke’s father. This one cost me NZ$2. I grabbed a couple of balls and a penny board for NZ$4 more and threw it all in the back of the van. I might’ve bought a whole set, but with a bed and kitchen already in the ride and a pandemic looming, prudence won the day.

The joy over my discovery was short-lived; the hours ticked off unabated. Our plan was still rough: Get back to somewhere, anywhere, in the U.S., then figure out the rest on familiar soil. But we had no more than a few days to make it happen. How far could we get before the standstill? Was flying too dangerous? Were there seats left to buy?

If anything went awry, we’d be relegated to lockdown in our van for what the U.S. embassy was calling “the indefinite future.” While we sprinted north, we made contingency plans. We’d need to find somewhere to park near a grocery store. And a public bathroom. Hopefully the campgrounds weren’t full—or, worse, closed. Despite the enveloping stress, I took small solace in that niblick. No matter where we ended up, at least I could chip around. I could aim at a tree, or a flightless bird like the weka, the pesky cousin of the kiwi that the locals certainly wouldn’t miss.

The first night, we slept under a streetlight in a town called Franz Josef. Then we slid up the rainy west coast through towns like Kakapotahi and

Hokitika, each more silent than the last as the country slowed to a crawl. Constant searches were coming up empty—still no plane ticket, still no way out, but still hopeful something would break our way. The wedge rattled along in the back, my consolation prize if our luck ran dry.

Finally, we made it to Picton in time to catch one of the last scheduled ferries to the North Island the next afternoon. It was absolutely packed. We’d heard the virus spread with ease aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan, but this three-hour ferry ride was our only way to keep moving. We tried to keep our distance and hold our breath on the way to Wellington. 

When we got off the ship, we heard the news: The prime minister had informed the Kiwis that their country was moving to a Level 4 alert to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus. In less than 48 hours, all businesses would close, with the exceptions of grocery stores and pharmacies. Unlike in the U.S., all restaurant operations would cease. Nonessential travel within the country would halt completely. Police would monitor the streets and highways. The particulars were stark, bordering on apocalyptic, but Ardern’s tone and sign-off eased the blow: “Stay calm, stay kind.”

33 hours until lockdown

Typically discreet New Zealanders abandoned their offices to panic-buy food and supplies. The country buckled down for a nightmare, or rather in hopes of avoiding one. Like everyone else, we had just over a day to figure out our plans. Still no luck with plane tickets, and the cold reality began settling in that wherever we wound up at midnight on Wednesday, March 25, would be our new semi-permanent home.

We hurtled north toward the surf town of Raglan, a small, hippie enclave known for its cameo in The Endless Summer. Before the pandemic, we’d dreamed of finding work there and learning how to surf. Maybe the local golf course would need a looper or a cart guy. But now Raglan was in our sights as a place to lay low while we tried one more time to get home. We had no idea where in town we’d set up camp or how long we’d stay, but we pinned our hopes on a good break.

15 hours until lockdown

We pulled into town on Wednesday morning, leeched some Wi-Fi from a café and reached out to family and friends to hash out once and for all if coming home was possible. Flights out of New Zealand were either prohibitively expensive or nonexistent. Some had only a single seat left.

That afternoon, a nearby park on the water offered an easy place for us to start cleaning up our van and reckon with whatever lay ahead. We charged phones and computers and searched for good places in town to hide away. Maybe we could just park on the street.

7 hours until lockdown

While we tried to stay positive, the reality of quarantine in a foreign land began to take hold. We were still stuck with this van, and still a long way from home. 

As the sun set on the first night of lockdown, we had to find a place to sleep for the foreseeable future. But before that: chipping. I pulled out the wedge and began flipping the few golf balls I had around the park. I hit flop shots at a kids’ playset that was taped down and officially off-limits. I couldn’t skull any balls into the inlet; who knew how long I’d need them? A couple in their 70s sauntered by, taking interest in my impromptu short-game session. They were dressed for cooler weather; summer couldn’t last forever.

A few minutes later, they walked past again, still eyeing us. Caroline greeted them with a smile, as if to warm our potential new neighbors up to the possibility of a pair of vagabonds moving in across the road.

“Where are you all headed for the lockdown?” the woman asked.

“That’s a great question. We don’t exactly know,” Caroline replied.

“Well, at least he’s getting some practice in,” the man said.

I kept chipping, and they smiled and kept walking. But suddenly, they paused. The woman leaned over to her husband as if to ask him something. They turned back around.

“Are you from America?”

I picked up my range balls and made my way over. We stood 10 feet from the older couple and explained our predicament: the ferry, the flights, the van.

“Well, if you’re sure you don’t have anywhere to go, you can stay with us if you’d like,” the woman said.

It was the most generous and seemingly reckless gift they could offer to two strangers in the face of a pandemic. Especially after only two minutes of conversation.

“We have a flat in our house over there if you’d like to stay. It’s separate from us, so we’d be completely isolated from one another,” she added in her kindest Kiwi accent.

Caroline and I looked at each other in shock. We walked over, remaining 10 feet behind them, to see their home. Sure enough, a full apartment lay on the ground floor. It was built for their adult children to visit from the U.K., but that wouldn’t be happening anytime soon. We couldn’t believe it: Thanks in part to a few too many flop shots, we’d stumbled into the luckiest lie of all time.

Without prompt or pretense, Helen and Peter Green welcomed us into their home, free of charge. We pulled into their driveway, brought in some clothes and started our Kiwi quarantine just beneath them. Other than venturing to the grocery store so our hosts didn’t have to take the risk, we lived in complete isolation: one couple below, one above, and entire lives in between.

Every day, we’d meet them in the inlet across the road for a swim at high tide. We’d all wade out at a proper distance and enjoy the frigid Pacific as it drifted into Raglan. We’d talk about their grandkids or Helen’s lifelong mission as, fittingly, a humanitarian. Their gracious offer began to make some sense.

Day 13 of lockdown

Two weeks in, our luck turned again: We found a flight back to the U.S. with two empty seats. We bought a final bag of groceries for Helen and Peter, then packed for Auckland and the long journey back.

On our way to the airport, we found a local in a grocery store parking lot willing to buy the van. I tossed the new owner the keys and felt a twinge of sadness as we watched him drive off in our former home.

We couldn’t fit the sand wedge in our luggage, but I knew where it belonged. I left it propped against a rock in a park behind the PAK’nSAVE grocery store in the town of Thames. Ready for its next clutch save.